Green City Guide: Miami
When I first visited Miami, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. A lot of people told me it was essentially the southeastern foil to the city where I grew up, “Just like Los Angeles but with more neon.” This didn’t alleviate my fears. But, spoiler alert: when I did finally visit, I liked it. Actually, I loved it. There’s a lot that’s similar to LA, but even more that’s completely unique and truly unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.
Miami is a beautiful and complex place. Yes, it’s a magnet for snowbirds and gym rats, but over recent years it’s also become a destination for a growing number of groups — contemporary artists, small business owners, ambitious restauranteurs, and more. Meanwhile, the city has continued to solidify its reputation as the unofficial capital of Latin America. It’s bright and loud and muggy and at times it can feel like you’re in another country entirely. On top of everything else, it is so GREEN. Between the naturally occurring swamps and mangroves, and the expertly landscaped front yards and public gardens, the city’s unbridled plantlife is a feast for the eyes.
Give it a try. Go to Miami and get off the beaten path. You won’t regret it.
Public Green Spaces
15th St or 24th St
The pulse of the Miami Beach area. The swell of the tides matches the coming and going of millions of locals and visitors each year. South Beach is everything you imagine it to be (neon, art deco, hotel bars, palm trees, thongs) and also some of what you probably aren’t expecting (on a recent trip, the group of bros next to us brought their full wet bar with them and made fresh gourmet mojitos right there in the sand). The beach is beautiful no matter where you decide to lay your towel, though I’ve had the most enjoyable and relaxing experiences slightly farther north. If you settle too far south, you may not be able to tune out the club remixes blaring from your neighbors’ portable radios.
The only national park of its kind, and the largest protected subtropical wilderness in the country. South Florida is very flat, so you won’t be embarking on any ear-popping mountain ascents. Though in the Everglades an encounter with wildlife is just about guaranteed. Anhinga birds sit on wooden railings and stretch their wings for passersby to admire, while sunbathing alligators are rampant (and though they seem lazy, it’s probably best not to tempt them). The swampy wilderness is damp and dusty and grassy and dark beneath the deep tree canopies. It’s incredibly biodiverse and well worth a visit. A long drive before sunset around nearby Loop Road is highly recommended — just make sure you give yourself enough time to get through to the other side before dark. You should also plan to stop at the Robert is Here fruit stand for some local mangos and honey.
Rent a kayak and float through mangroves and among the giant mansions of Coral Gables. As you paddle, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife perched on piers and bathing in the sun. When we were there, we saw blue herons and giant lizards hanging out like it was no big deal. After kayaking, eat the lunch you brought in waterproof packaging next to the atoll pool, which is filled and emptied by the tides of Biscayne Bay.
This public garden used to be a makeshift zoo known as Parrot Jungle. Old emptied bird cages still dot the landscape, but the focus has been redirected to plants. All kinds of plants. Giant and green and catching the light that filters down through the hardwood hammock. We went in the middle of the day on a weekday, and only saw a small handful of other people. Having this beautiful jungle to ourselves for a couple of hours was truly breathtaking. Admission is $5 at the front kiosk, and the experience is well worth it.
Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the Kampong was the retirement home of Dr. David Fairchild, a famous horticulturist and plant hunter who traveled the world in search of new and unknown flora. The Kampong is one of five gardens in the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and the only one located within the lower 48 states. It features hundreds of species of exotic fruit, flowering trees, palms, and other plants from across the tropical and Caribbean world.
This garden is fairly small, but in planning its layout, the landscape designers must have aimed to include as much life and movement as they could. There are gardens within the garden, water features, paths, bridges, and spaces to just sit and relax. About a 45 minute drive south, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is much larger and contains many more species, but admission to this smaller botanical garden is free.
Wander the home of nineteenth century millionaire James Deering. The stunning art collection is permanently on view to the public, as are the European-inspired formal gardens and living collection of subtropical and endangered plants. If you’re feeling cheap, skip paying the entrance fee and instead hang out at nextdoor Alice C. Wainwright Park, which offers an excellent view of Key Biscayne and Cape Florida.
This garden doesn’t have much in the way of plant variety; a few allées of palm trees line the sidewalks, guiding visitors up to the entrance of the Bass Museum. But the main attraction here is the rotating collection of contemporary works of sculpture. If you’re lucky, a local guitarist will be sitting on a bench in the park, playing softly while you view the art and enjoy the oceanfront breeze.
A jungle in the city. Sometimes the best parks are the ones no one talks about, the ones where you go on elementary school field trips and never realize how special they are. This park is unassuming; you’ll wander along the winding road past picnic huts and disc golf baskets until you get to the deeply wooded hiking area. The path is clear and flanked on either side with dense brush, giant palm leaves, and intertwining vines. It’s quiet and perfect and a wonderful place to sit and listen to the wind rustling through the native trees.
Where to Shop
An excellent bookstore located in one of the classiest parts of town. Their selection is fantastic and constantly evolving to represent what’s new and interesting. Give yourself lots of time to browse the rows and rows of wooden bookcases that stretch from floor to ceiling. Grab a coffee and head to the patio where they often have live shows from local musicians.
South Beach / Lincoln Road
As you’re wandering down Lincoln Road Mall, do yourself a favor and step into this bookstore masquerading as a contemporary art gallery. Taschen’s books never fail to impress and their stores leave me spellbound. Page through hundreds of travel guides, art and architecture books, and more.
A giant warehouse bursting with music from across the Spanish-speaking world. This is an amazing place to browse CDs, vinyl, tapes, and videos. The buyers here pride themselves on offering a robust selection of media, much of it hard to find. If by some chance they don’t have what you’re looking for, they can put in an order and have it shipped to you.
South Beach / Alton Road
Metaphysical instruction, incense, meditative pyramids, jewelry, and crystals. There’s a lot of energy in this shop, and you’re encouraged to bring some of it home with you. A great spot to escape the crowds around the corner on Lincoln Road. Grab a book and a floor pillow and relax your mind.
South Beach / Alton Road
A lovely little market in the heart of the Beach. Their produce is beautiful and fresh, their fancy cheese and cracker selection is excellent, and they sell lots of local products like eggs and bread. A great place to stock your small vacation kitchen!
Where to Eat
Coral Gables / Coral Way
True to the name, this is the best place to have a transcendent experience with juice. Every fruit is here, even the hard to find tropical ones. The juices are flavorful, the coffee is strong, and the food (served cafeteria style) is delicious, ample, and refreshingly inexpensive. My favorite location is open air with no walls and a colorful canopy overhead. When the warm winter rains come, you can watch the storm roll in while you dine on perfectly ripe platanos maduros.
When you’re planning your trip to South Beach, make sure you book lodging as close to Charlotte as possible. On one of our recent trips, we literally went there everyday, sometimes multiple times a day. Their selection of food (including just about every South American variation on fried cheese bread) is vast and tasty. Their service is also so kind and welcoming. We became regulars here faster than I thought was possible.
We were craving delicious food and a nice outdoor patio on which to eat it. We got both of those things here, plus amazing people watching and some of the best paletas we’ve ever had. There are multiple excellent vegetarian tacos on the menu, the guacamole is delicious, the chips are nice and salty, and service is quick and efficient. We didn’t make it to the hidden bar through the back door, but I hear it’s great. Go here! I promise you won’t regret it.
Grab an early brunch table in their beautiful outdoor courtyard and fill up on fun, fresh dishes prepared with locally-grown produce. Twenty Seven is located in the new Freehand hotel, where the design details are quirky and contemporary, and the crowd is young, cool, and sun-kissed.
Come and gawk at the Veg Chalkboard, stuffed with almost two dozen different vegetable based dishes, which can be mixed and matched and served up for you in the Veg Plate. Blue Collar also makes a great veggie burger with homemade patty and topped with corn, broccoli, and peppers. Vegetables, guys!!
Get hip to the buñuelo and the almojábana, two different but similarly glorious deep-fried cheesy bread balls from Colombia. This small and simple spot does quick counter service for folks in the know. Try to go early as they often sell out of their amazing treats!
This Amsterdam-based chain had the brilliant forethought to bring two of the best foods under the same roof: falafel sandwiches and belgian frites. Really fresh, really great flavor, really satisfying.
The menu at this place is out of this world. You’ll probably have a hard time choosing what to order because everything they serve is fresh, sustainably harvested, and made with foremost focus on flavor. Most of the items are vegetarian-friendly, and many can be made vegan and gluten free.
South Beach / Lincoln Road
Perfect thin crust Neapolitan-style pizza. Grab a table outside to immerse yourself in the best part about Lincoln Road Mall, the incredible people-watching.
The best thai food in Miami. Comfortable, welcoming atmosphere with warm, excellent service. Their curries are spicy and creamy and so mouthwatering. A great place for a filling meal after kayaking at nearby Oleta River State Park.
Where to Drink
Kendall / Bird Road
This was where I had my first cup of coffee. You read that right. First ever cup. It was a cafecito, served Cuban style, in a tiny espresso mug, pumped full of sugar. I drank it in the early evening, standing outside the restaurant near dozens of older Cuban men, all immune to the caffeine and gossiping about their day’s dramas. The coffee kept me up all night and ruined me for all other cups of coffee. May you have as perfect a coffee experience as I did. And may you have it at La Carreta.
These are the people that started the specialty coffee roasting revolution in Miami. After opening their first location in Wynwood, it became the number one place where you came if you had a deep appreciation for (or obsession with) really good coffee. Find an open spot on the sleek concrete patio to enjoy your cold brew or pour-over.
331 23rd St, Miami Beach
If you’re in the Collins Park area, this gas station (yes, gas station) is the best place to grab your café cubano. They also sell great baked/fried goods and cheap sunglasses. Ahhhhh this place.
The hotel bar in the Freehand that, as just about everyone will tell you, is much more than a hotel bar. It’s the local watering hole, it’s the place to blow off steam, it’s the place to get turnt up, and it’s also a James Beard Award semifinalist. This is where you go for a really, really amazing cocktail.
A beautiful cocktail bar that’s darkly lit and richly appointed with dark wood, leather, and velvet. You almost expect to see the Rat Pack over in a corner, sipping on Manhattans in smart summer suits. The Regent specializes in perfectly executed classic cocktails, but also features a daily menu of rotating drinks inspired by what’s fresh, good, and in season.
This place is the opposite of the stereotypical Miami bar many vacationers are looking for. If the club is exactly where you don’t want to go, Wood Tavern may have what you’re looking for. Wander past walls covered in graffiti and plastered with skate stickers to the back patio where the music is loud and the crowd is rowdy. Tacos are free on Tuesdays, so pray they make vegetarian ones on the next Tuesday you’re in the area.
Healthy pours and a comfortable atmosphere. The Local is like a lot of bars in Chicago and the midwest: outfitted with exposed brick, a large vintage wooden bar, and a hearty bourbon selection. It’s a nice break from the linen pillows and gauzy curtains of many beachfront hotel bars, and their staff is attentive and funny. A great place for a nightcap.
Where to See a Show
This lovely movie theater shows short runs of movies you can’t find anywhere else. Many screenings are bookended with premier events, closing parties, and Q&A sessions. They show dozens of different award-nominated films throughout the year, and curate a series of programs just for kids and families. A great way to escape the heat and catch up on your art house cinema.
On our most recent trip to Miami, we dragged some beach chairs from our rental’s closet down to the New World Symphony’s outdoor space for a free screening of the 1984 classic Ghostbusters. In between mouthfuls of creamy camembert and white wine, I looked around and realized we were surrounded by locals; families, couples, and even a group of the scruffy beach kids that like to use the boardwalk as their stage for shenanigans. Everyone was laughing along to the movie, to each others’ private jokes, and generally having a great time. It was wonderful. The Symphony also screens live music and opera productions with their WALLCAST system. Check their calendar ahead of time to see what’s coming up.
This amazing bar has traveled a rocky road over the years. Originally opened in the 1930s, the bar has passed through many hands and dealt with many setbacks, shuttering completely in the ’90s and eventually reopening with a bang in 2015. The back patio’s famous pineapple stage is home to La Pachanga, their weekly latin jazz show, though they also put on regular (free!) salsa dance nights and other events. Grab a well-shaken rum drink at the bar and get ready to dance. You can’t fight it.
Where to Sleep
This place again! A great option for young, social travelers who are open to meeting new people and love having a world class cocktail lounge in the same building where they sleep. The Freehand is experiencing all kinds of buzz right now, and for good reason. It’s beautiful, well designed, comfortable, delicious, and affordable.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Biltmore is where you go when you want to a) get away from the hustle of the Beach, and b) be treated like royalty. The grounds are gorgeous, their central courtyard is lush and overflowing with plants, the lobby is dark and mysterious, and the rooms are bright and luxurious.
Belle Isle Island
Suites are clean, white, and minimalist, just like their pool and outdoor spaces. Located out on Belle Isle Island, you’ll feel like you landed right in the middle of your own private paradise. Make a reservation for dinner at the on-site Lido Restaurant, and grab an early morning smoothie at their juice bar for sipping in the hammock garden.
This place is amazing. It’s in an incredible location — we felt like locals and could walk everywhere we wanted to. The apartment itself is comfortable, cozy, clean, and beautifully updated. Walk from the front door to the oceanfront, toes in the sand, in 5 minutes flat.